Friday, February 4, 2011

I Think, Therefore I Am (German)

In a day and age when professional alarmists fret about the dumbing down of humankind - because all medieval peasants were avid readers of the Literary Review - it is reassuring to know that thinking is positively thriving in at least one country. Germany is rather fond of pondering, dissecting, mulling, musing, ruminating and other mental gymnastics. Germany has been the main exporter of dry philosophy since time immemorial, before the French started smoking and hanging out in cafés. Often it is sublime and other times it is tad too dense. Martin Heidegger’s magnus opus Being and Time was according to Roger Scrutton “formidably difficult - unless it is utter nonsense, in which case it is laughably easy. I am not sure how to judge it, and have read no commentator who even begins to make sense of it”. This incidentally is often how I feel when I peruse the politics section of Süddeutsche Zeitung.

George Bernard Shaw claimed that “an Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable” . A German, on the other hand, feels uncomfortable when he thinks he is being moral. Can he ascertain this morality? How do you define morality? And what social forces cause him to question his morals in the first place? Which role does the concept of moral play in today’s society? At this point, and to assuage his (or her!) guilt, a German feels compelled to write a 5,000 word editorial in the Tagesspiegel consisting of 10 line sentences containing 20 subclauses interspersed with 30 brackets and asides written exclusively in the passive mode, so they can bring out their entire collection of “geworden gewesen wurden haben” verbs they have been keeping for those special occasions. Whatever the conclusion (spoiler: it might be America’s fault), rest assured that readers will be reminded of their victimhood. In an Advanced Capitalist Society we are ALL victims. Blame it on the Advanced Capitalist Society. Whatever an Advanced Capitalist Society is (clue, a German philosopher* is its main analyst). But if it weren’t for an ACS (I’m not German, and got tired of typing) there wouldn’t be editorials, debates, opinion of the day. There wouldn’t be any Tatort!

With this in mind I recently came across a piece in The Economist on Muslim immigrants learning about Germany’s Nazi past. Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste), a peace organization founded to confront the legacy of Nazism, is running a series of seminars and tutorials about the third Reich targeted at immigrant women who want to know more about this episode in history. This has provoked controversy and much soul searching in Germany and its brooding inhabitants and led to yet another wave of editorials. I don’t know about you, but at this point I’m expecting editorials whenever Facebook changes its layout. Anyway, on the one hand there’s scepticism in certain quarters about the genuine interest of immigrants in the Holocaust. The course is partly funded by the interior ministry who is eager to prevent anti-Semitism and discourage Islamist extremism, as well as reach out to the country’s large Muslim community. There are, of course, many Germans who welcome interest in Hitler’s regime on the part of guest workers and encourage them to contribute with their thoughts on the subject. The whole kerfuffle is Germany in a nutshell:

The unspoken assumption is that there is a middle ground between German remorse and indifference. As enlightened Germans, the seminar-givers see the Holocaust as a unique crime committed mainly against the Jews. Yet they must make room for the views of women whose backgrounds have little to do with the persecution of Jews and who may have suffered horrors of their own. Taking their experiences seriously matters as much as instructing them. There is a risk of “relativising” the Holocaust, says Astrid Messerschmidt of the University of Education in Karlsruhe. Yet the German version of history “cannot be imposed from above”.

Most fraught, says Mrs Weduwen [who organises the seminars] , are discussions of the Middle East. The women learn that both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict have grievances. The message can receive a hostile reception when Israeli commandos storm ships trying to break the Gaza blockade. Mrs Boumekik is involved in educating Arab families who blame Jews for the conflict. That is like assuming Muslims are terrorists, she says. With hostility to Muslims mounting in Germany, some women draw parallels with Nazi racism.

To a German pundit, this news item is a dream come true. Sod Advanced Capitalist Societies! It contains National Socialism + Collective Guilt + Immigrants + Women in Headscarfs + Israeli-Palestinian Conflict = Editorial Gold! Throw in a healthy dose of nuclear energy, a sprinkle of homeopathy with a side of Hartz IV, and I guarantee you that Germans will be thinking for a very very long time. Anyway, I don’t know what these poor women have to do to integrate into German society. They’re already willingly taking part in a 60-hour tutorial about the Nazis (and knowing Germans I suspect this is one session). Maybe they could engage in a 7 hour debate on what it means to be German, and whoever refrains from rolling their eyes and beating other participants over the head repeatedly with an unabridged copy of Being and Time gets a German passport.

* I actually happen to like Habermas

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Year Onwards

I am the passenger and I ride and I ride
I ride through the city’s backsides
I see the stars come out of the sky
Yeah, the bright and hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight

So today I woke up nursing a hangover - not that this is unusual for a Sunday - and realised that on this date, a year ago, I arrived in Berlin. That’s all I’m able to muster really, because Berliner Kindl (filed under “acquired taste”, “beggars can’t be choosers” and the sadly overused “Why?”) really affects your ability to string coherent sentences together the following day. Some things are never a good idea. Like invading Russia in winter, declaring your ship unsinkable and letting Leonardo Dicaprio play an Irishman. Or mixing cheap beer with raspberry syrup to hide the flavour.

Anyway, so in honour of this anniversary I’m playing a Berlin soundtrack of sorts, something with depth and melody, a classic. In other words, no techno. Long before The Age of the Turntable, Berlin inspired many artists, like Iggy Pop, a passenger who rides through West Berlin in the 70s and finds himself full of lust for life.

Thanks for being such a wonderful host Berlin!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Defending the Germans

It is no coincidence - and a testament to the political importance of history in Germany- that both former West German chancellor Helmut Kohl and former East German boss Walter Ulbricht were self-appointed historians by profession.

Time Out Berlin Guide 2009 Edition

I’ve lived in Germany for almost a year now and this is only the second post in which I use the N-word, or Nazis as they call them round here. Germans have absolutely no qualms about mentioning the war - pick up any newspaper and chances are that you will come across a reference to WW2. Confronting history is a national pastime and the phenomenon has, true to Teutonic tradition, one of those unwieldy gobstoppers that I like to call übercompounds - Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Although I don’t know if I’m going to let that one into the übercompounds’ hall of headache, as it only consists, believe it or not, of two nouns - “Vergangenheit” (past) and “Bewältigung (translated here as “coming to terms with”). Anyway, there’s been much soul searching and handwringing - the harshest critics of Germany are the Germans themselves. Nobody is going to assuage their guilt, for the sole reason that they do not want to be forgiven. Although they would appreciate it if you occasionally refrained from bringing Hitler up, even if it is just in internet debates. They get it, you know. Many of them had to visit a former concentration camp as part of their curriculum. And yet Americans continue to be hung up on the war, maybe because this was the last conflict in which their involvement was, well, conflict free. Ditto for the UK, perhaps because this was the last time it was regarded as a world power, in the waning days of its Empire, before reluctantly handing over the baton to America.

Speaking of empires, no country that has ever had colonial ambitions (and they all have) comes clean out of this mudslinging contest. Nobody. Descending from the people of two former colonial powers, Spain and Denmark, I should have a pretty heavy cross to bear. Spain for culling or raping their way through a whole subcontinent (when not giving them smallpox or illnesses the native population had never been exposed to), Denmark for raping and pillaging their way through Europe, and later for colonising Greenland and turning the population into alcoholics. And making them learn Danish. At least we didn’t make them take up cricket! That’s just cruel.

Perhaps something similar will happen to WW2, and in a couple of centuries it will be just one more item in the extensive catalogue of human atrocities like the Great Leap Forward, the Scramble for Africa or the Dirty War. Fretting about Auschwitz didn’t stop the Killing Fields. Or Darfur.

So now that I’ve immersed us in a grand collective Mea Culpa, should Germany be exonerated? Of course not, nobody should. And that’s the point, we’re all in the same boat. Of course it’s essential to be reminded of the atrocities of which humanity is capable (and yes, these are still people - there are no mass murders, no monsters, just people committing the unspeakable). We do not want history to repeat itself despite doing so with more frequency than we’d wish. And yet we must be doing something right - there are less people dying in armed conflict since records began, despite the often misleading impression, thanks to technological developments, that remind us daily of conflicts we otherwise wouldn’t be aware of. 

Again, my little rant is not going to stop the History Channel from being the Hitler Channel. I’ve yet to watch a documentary about the Weimar Republic; or German Romanticism (the German variety is known for valuing wit and humour as opposed to its more serious English counterpart); or Martin Luther and the rise of Protestantism, which would eventually funnily enough lead to secularism; or Karl Marx and the rise of social conscience; or that German scientist were great innovators and often recipients of the Nobel prize until the 30s. No, why expand our viewers’ horizons and dismantle prejudices when we can show a documentary about the role of donkeys under the Third Reich (I can’t find a source, but you’ll have to trust me on this one, was sober) Never mind that I’m about as personally responsible for ransacking the Aztec empire as Germans nowadays are for putting Jews on trains to Poland. For example, I was recently in Amsterdam where I found out that some locals still direct German tourists to the Anne Frank House when asked for directions to the nearest coffeeshop. Apparently they haven’t forgiven them yet for taking away their bikes under the WW2 occupation, as commemorated in the Dutch expression ‘okay, first return the bike’, which means ‘first things first’. Well, I’ve NEVER thought that I would agree with ANY National Socialist policy but I’m totally behind this one. In a similar vein, I suspect that this is the same reason Mussolini wanted the Italian trains to run on time after having, presumably, experienced first-hand Romans’ automotive skills. Amsterdammers should not been given back their bikes until they learn to distinguish between red and green (perhaps there’s a high Daltonism incidence amongst its inhabitants). So there you go, Nazis might have been responsible for genocide, kickstarting WW2 and causing the death of millions and the destruction of cities, asphyxiating the rich Weimar cultural scene, banning good taste (i.e. Bauhaus) and being the sole reason of existence for the History Channel. But they stood up to the Dutch cyclists!

No seriously, test your general knowledge…what do you know about Germany? How much do you know about its history that doesn’t involve swastikas? Or walls?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Teufelsberg: A Metaphor for Something


Last Tuesday we went to Teufelsberg, which means Devil’s Mountain, located in the district of Wilmersdorf, north of the Grunewald forest. Teufelsberg is not only a hill, but also a giant metaphor, although like many other Berlin landmarks, it’s not clear what it is meant to illustrate. The 80 metre high hill, found in the former British sector, towers over its flat Brandenburg surroundings. It’s the highest hill in Berlin, higher than the one found in Kreuzberg and other -berg ending Berlin districts. If anything it illustrates the lack of altitude in the capital. What’s remarkable about Teulfelsberg however, is not its height, but its composition. It’s made up entirely of the debris and rubble of Berlin, gradually gaining inches over the 20 years after the war as the Allies rebuilt the West.

The site was originally the home of the Wehrtechnishe Fakultät, a military technical college designed by Albert Spree, Hitler’s architect and all around fascist aesthetic consultant. Construction ground to a halt with the war’s eruption and only the shell of the compound was completed. After the end of the conflict, there were plans to knock it down, but it withstood any demolition attempts. In the end the Allies were forced to literally bury it under the weight of historical memory. 12 million cubic metres of it, the equivalent of 400,000 buildings. But this is not what attracts so many visitors to Teufelsberg - it’s sadly not the only debris mound in the world created by armed conflict. It is however the only one that also hosted a listening station owned by the US National Security Agency (NSA) during the Cold War. In other words, it was a spy lair perched on top of a million cubic metres of war wreckage underneath which a nazi military technology academy lurked. See what I mean by giant metaphor? It gets better though. With the fall of the Wall, the station was quickly dismantled and all the spy equipment swiftly removed. The building and the radar remained though and stood abandoned until they were acquired by a group of investors, presumably high on post-unification optimism who planned to turn the site into flats. This plan was later abandoned, probably after the investors discovered Berliners’ refusal to live in anything but an Altbau.

Once again deserted, the place fell prey to vandals, arsonists and urban desolation fetishists. New Berliners marked their territory, covering it in graffiti and leaving a trail of beer bottles and broken glass. The glass is of the anti-bullet variety, but apart from that, it looks uncannily like my local U-Bahn station. It even has a broken lift! I have no idea what to make of the Teufelsberg metaphor, it has way too many layers. Its current sorry state is however a source of anxiety for a group of individuals who seem to be under the illusion that the spy station is somehow single-handedly responsible for stopping Berlin turning into a smouldering atomic crater and ruining everybody’s barbecue plans. I for one rejoice over the fact that it is no longer in use and that Berlin is, at least in this respect, a pleasantly uneventful city. Disconcertingly phallic in appearance, a vandalised Teufelsberg is perhaps a fitting reminder of the sticky situations to which unchecked levels of testosterone can lead us. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

Why is Berlin special?

Why is Berlin special? Certainly not for its beauty or its state of preservation. Berlin is fascinating rather, as a city of bold gestures and startling incongruities, of ferment and destruction. It is a city whose buildings, ruins, and voids groan under the burden of painful memories […] The concentration of troubling memories, physical destruction, and renewal has made Berliners, however reluctantly, international leaders in exploring the links between urban form, historical preservation and national identity.

The Ghosts of Berlin, Brian Ladd

If the historical form of the city is to provide the standard, which of the many Berlin pasts is meant? Baroque or classical Berlin, Berlin from the time of unification or the chaotic Twenties, to say nothing of the insane building plans of the Nazi years?

Peter Schneider

Friday, June 25, 2010
Ironically, it was I, and not my German roommates, who suffered from that famous German syndrome: Mauer-im-Kopf, or “wall in the head.” I knew the path the Berlin Wall had traced only two blocks from our Kreuzberg apartment; my roommates did not. They took their out-of-town guests to the natural history museum; I took my bewildered visitors to barren patches of park where the concrete Mauer used to stand. I got the distinct sense during my year in Berlin that the preoccupation with history’s physical imprint on the city was an Auslander phenomenon. Amelia Atlas in n+1’s Berlin Trilogy, a worth-reading review of three books set in (and, more or less, about) the city. I’m definitely keen to read Book of Clouds, and I wish I could read enough German to make sense of Treffen sich zwei. (via blech)
Saturday, May 22, 2010 Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It was acceptable in the 80s

Unless you’ve been hiding in a nuclear bunker for the last 3 years, you will have noticed that the 80s have had a comeback. It was just a matter of time. Leave it to fester for long enough, and your brain will soon be intoxicated with the fumes of nostalgia. Everything looks better in hindsight, which explains the continuing appeal of the Tory party, or the revival of harem pants. But enough with the outdated outfits. As I was saying, the 80s are alive and kicking and the Prussian capital is no exception to the winds of fashion. East and West differ however in how they approach this decade. In Friederischain, people born in the 80s are its main sartorial ambassadors, whilst down the Ku’damm everybody dresses like it’s 1989, and have been doing so since, well, 1989. Not a lot has happened down there since the wall came down. The city’s centre of gravity reverted to Mitte, the historical centre, and the money followed. Formerly the showcase of West Berlin, the Ku’damm languishes amidst an outdated projection of capitalism that now feels crass and vulgar. Consumerism still thrives of course, but under a different guise, and the Ku’damm feels so 80s. And let’s admit it, that was a decade that good taste forgot. Perms, mullets, clip on earrings, gold buttons and Lionel Richie songs…The Ninja Turtles had more style than that, but they were Ninjas. 

Poor 80s, it always gets bullied for its questionable taste, when in fact all decades should be sent to the gulag for crimes against aesthetics and, most importantly, making you look like a colour bind geology teacher during your teenage years. Periods are always heavily curated before they are allowed to re-enter the mainstream. So when fashion editors rave about the 80s, they have Debbie Harry in mind, and not say, Chris de Burgh. This is of course a reconstructed vision of the 80s, filtered through American Apparel and adidas Originals, and worn by people too young to remember Chris de Burgh. For the unadulterated version, go down to the Ku’damm. Or don’t.

Incidentally, the nuclear bunker is on the Ku’damm.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sorry, but I am stranger here myself

"Nationalism is an infantile disease… It is the measles of mankind." Albert Einstein

"Germany has been called the first postmodern nation and the first postnational society. Those labels refer to the tendency of German intellectuals to reject any unselfconscious German identity and to insist on questioning its nature and Genesis" Brian Ladd in Ghosts of Berlin

Perusing the archives of The Economist on a lazy Sunday, I was quite amused to learn that being foreign is no longer considered exotic, like not dying of scurvy, or being in possession of all your teeth after 30 - all wonders of the post-industrial age. For the first time in history, it is no longer a rarity to be a Korean in New York, a South African in Rome, an Estonian in Paris or in my case, a Scandiberian Londoner in Berlin. It is a state of perfect normalcy. It is true that many of members of this ever-growing diaspora have left their countries reluctantly, forced by poverty, war or persecution. But there is also a significant number who have left on their own will, caught by the traveling bug, attracted to its gastronomy or culture, seduced by the climate, or in my case, by a particularly alluring native. This penchant - given a half chance - for upping sticks displayed by a growing number of people clashes with long-established discourses that claim the human animal is best off at home. This is one of the founding tenets of Nationalism and other unnecessarily constraining ideologies.

Hermits apart, there is no doubt that the Homo Sapiens is a social creature. The fundamental fallacy of Nationalism is to assume that we should belong to one society only. There is no logical connection between these statements, but then again its proponents are not known for deconstructing false syllogisms, and spend their time instead defining themselves against the perceived otherness of, well, others.

It was not always this way, of course. Nationalism, or the identification of an ethnic identity with a state, has its roots in the American and French Revolution, which saw the emergency of the modern nation-state. Prior to these events, people would pledge their loyalties to a city or to a particular leader, rather than to a kingdom. Not that I endorse this either, but it is at least more feasible to identify oneself with a town than an entire nation. If I consider myself Danish, I would have to have something in common with 5 million people. That figure goes up to 46 million should I plump instead for my Spanish heritage. I am glad I am not Chinese, or Indian for that matter - you try to connect with a whole subcontinent.

The idea of a homogenous national culture is just that, an idea, but one that gets brought up repeatedly, regardless of the inability to reach a consensus of what constitutes a nation’s character. It is often localized in some pre-industrialized utopian past, before it was polluted by the arrival of outsiders, with a sentimentalised peasantry as the keepers of this elusive national ethos. This image of a pre-lapsian Arcadia has been popular since Classical times, think Virgil’s Eclogues, but it was only in the 19th century when it became permanently entrenched with nascent nationalistic discourses. Rediscovering one’s roots became all the rage, and aristocrats who had eschewed the local language in favour of the more cosmopolitan French would go hiking in the “national” costume, trying to emulate the peasants they had scorned a generation earlier. Hunger and poverty had in the meantime forced these peasants to migrate to the less bucolic cities, where they would co-exist, and often mingle with the sways of immigrants who were arriving, attracted too by what the metropolis had to offer.

So paradoxically, or perhaps coincidentally, this era of increased mobility also saw the rise of nationalism and its recurring bedfellow, militarism. The 20th century would witness the excesses of this poisonous mix of ethnical superiority and Jingoism that had fueled and legitimized the empires of the previous century. Commercial interests had always been at the heart of European expansion, of course, but now Nationalism was replacing Christianity as the religion preached by missionaries. Instead of the Pater Noster, colonised people would find themselves memorizing God Save the Queen. Fascism would pick up the baton of nationalism and take it to tragic extremes in western Europe, whilst Communism brewed its own lethal concoction in the East. The rest, as they say, is history. A history that now includes the Eastern Front, Auschwitz and the Great Leap Forward.

This brief digression shows not only the damaging effects of nationalism but also its recent origins. Nationalism might have been one of the driving political and social forces of the last two centuries, but it should never be regarded as our default state. Not only is it logically flawed but it is just one more ideology, a construct amongst other ideas competing for cultural dominance. I think people often forget this. In a way, it is not their fault, they have been inculcated with nationalism, until it becomes an organic concept, a state of normalcy.

But as we now know, being foreign is a state of normalcy these days. This growing number of expats, together with the lowest number of deaths in armed conflict since records began, fills me with a sense of optimism. True, xenophobia might be on the rise in a hungover world that got bloated with non-existent credit, and woke up to growing unemployment once the bubble burst. Spain, for example, was once the poor man of Europe, with Spaniards forced to migrate to other countries in search of job prospects. The property boom changed all that and made the Mediterranean country a desirable destination for members of less fortunate countries. The recent recession however led to growing racism with some Spaniards fretting over a shrinking pool of jobs they felt were entitled to as “natives” and other dubious nationalistic arguments.

I remain upbeat though and believe this to be a temporary setback. It has nothing on the Great Depression which, remember, was sandwiched between two world wars. The rise of xenophobia has been met with concern in most quarters, whereas fascism was actually fashionable in many parts of Europe during the Great Depression, i.e. the idea that one nation, race, or group is naturally superior to all others, and has a right to conquer or exterminate inferior nations, races, or groups. Ok, apart from Fox News.

Perhaps we could embrace the more rational civic nationalism which defines the nation as an association of people with equal and shared political rights, and allegiance to similar political procedures. But please leave that pesky “common ethnic ancestry” out the debate - it is political quicksand. Plus we are all mutts anyway. What’s this obsession with roots? I am not a tree. It would be a shame to put humans, such wonderfully eclectic and varied beings into a single box. As George Santayana once said “ To me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography”